Junkfood Science: When something sounds too good to be true: more cancer scams

September 19, 2008

When something sounds too good to be true: more cancer scams

As covered here in June, the Food and Drug Administration issued warning letters to 125 companies marketing fraudulent cancer cures through the internet and launched a consumer website, “Beware of Online Cancer Fraud,” which lists some of the most obvious signs of health fraud. The FTC, which regulates fraudulent marketing claims, joined the FDA in a new initiative to try and help prevent deceptive products from harming or taking advantage of cancer patients — at a time when they’re the most vulnerable, frightened and desperate.

Yesterday, the FDA announced it had issued additional warning letters to online entities selling fake cancer cures, bringing the total number to 187 products. The complete list of fake cancer 'cure' products and their manufacturers, and a consumer article on health scams, can be found here. The products contain ingredients like bloodroot, shark cartilage, coral calcium, cesium, ellagic acid, Cat's Claw, Essiac tea, and mushroom varieties such as Agaricus Blazeii, Shitake, Maitake, and Reishi.

The risks for consumers come not only from products that can have dangerous interactions with other medications, according to the FDA, but can lead consumers to perhaps forego more effective cancer treatments and medical care.

The FDA warning letters, which review each product’s website, provide valuable information on the types of products and the spurious claims being made, promising wellness and to prevent or treat cancers naturally. Sadly, many of these websites also target seniors. The FDA letters reveal just how convincing the websites — like any health claim — can be made to appear. Studies may be described to lead people to believe untenable correlations are causal and to seem like test tube studies have held up in clinical trials on humans; the funding of research or patents can be used as indicative of a product’s effectiveness; testimonials and citing scientific studies in a reference list can be used to make claims appear valid; metatags can bring unsuspecting consumers researching cancer to their websites of alternative modalities; traditional or ancient uses of a product are cited to imply a product is safe and effective; vague language and meaningless statements, such as helping the immune system or promoting wellness, or outright statements, lead consumers to believe the products prevent or treat disease; disclaimers can be used to attempt to mitigate “untrue or misleading information;” and precautions or side effects are rarely mentioned among the strong, assured claims of benefits.

Yesterday, the FTC also announced its latest law enforcement actions directed at companies making unsubstantiated claims that their products treat or cure cancer. The companies that haven’t settled are being litigated, but all will be required to notify customers that there is little or no scientific evidence for their products’ effectiveness and urge them to consult their doctors. The companies are also barred from selling their customer lists to others who might want to scam patients. The public is cautioned that many of the websites remain on the internet.

The FTC also launched its new consumer website about bogus cancer cures called Cure-ious? More details about the FTC actions and the companies involved in its sting are here. The products include a toxin that can cause cyanide poisoning, herbals associated with acute toxic hepatitis, a salve that’s been reported to cause severe burns and permanent scarring, and a wide variety of products with no valid scientific evidence that they can prevent, cure or treat cancer of any kind, according to the director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection.

These actions aren’t a conspiracy to restrict consumer choices, but to help warn people of fraudulent products and claims that can harm them, especially when they may most need effective medical care. These actions are also to help give people critical thinking tools so that they don’t become victimized by companies hoping to take advantage of them. It’s sad these actions are needed. They wouldn’t be necessary if companies policed themselves and didn’t let greed override caring for people’s health. But there’s always been health fraud and probably always will. Please be careful out there.

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